Strawdog Theatre Company

at Cafe Voltaire

The press release for The House of Correction describes it as “a brilliant, provocative, wholly original comedy that combines the worlds of Kafka, Joe Orton, and Arthur Miller.” But if this thing is “wholly original,” where do Kafka, Orton, and Miller fit in? And why does the play remind me not of those guys but of Ionesco, Frisch, and Pinter? Skip the sales talk about brilliant and provocative. If this is a comedy, why wasn’t the audience laughing?

Scene one is beaucoup Ionesco. You have a middle-class married couple, Carl and Marion, and their friend Steve. Steve tells them he’s been distraught on account of his wife’s having been brutally murdered, and he needs a place to stay until he’s back on his feet. At Marion’s request, Carl agrees to put Steve up. But when Carl and Marion are alone together, they discover that neither of them has ever seen Steve before, and each had mistakenly assumed him to be the other’s friend.

Scene two, a day later, is almost a plot summary of Max Frisch’s Biedermann and the Firebugs. Carl confronts Steve. But Steve plays upon Carl’s shallow liberalism–baiting him with arguments about social responsibility–calls him a liar to his face, and tells him that he slept with Marion while Carl was at work. Carl, standing as tall as a throw rug, gives Steve until Sunday to leave.

In scene three Marion emerges as that ambiguous yet sinister female character who plays the pivot in many of Pinter’s early dramas. Of course she had sex with Steve, but she can’t understand why Carl is getting so upset about it. How could Carl be so insensitive to Steve’s tragedy? She makes Carl invite Steve–who’s ransacking their bedroom at the time–to join them in bed. Carl reluctantly gives in, but the next morning, at breakfast, Marion mollifies him with a little breast-feeding.

From this point on playwright Norman Lock–himself having ransacked the best European absurdist theater of the 50s–embarks upon his revolutionary new agenda, “The Theatre of Justice!” You can read all about it in Lock’s prolific program notes: how justice that eludes the bourgeois legal system may yet be achieved in the theater. But it’s a dry read, full of undergraduate moral tone, in which the author casually compares his work to Bertolt Brecht’s. The upshot of this manifesto, in terms of The House of Correction, is that Steve illustrates the notion that we should be held accountable for our actions, regardless of our ignorance or the remoteness of the action from its consequences. I think I first encountered this revolutionary notion when I read Oedipus Rex in high school.

Setting the issue of originality aside, here’s where the plot thickens. Steve has really come to exact revenge. Carl wrote the ad copy promoting the IUD that killed Steve’s wife. Now, Steve insists, someone must die to “correct” for his wife’s death. Will it be Carl, executed, perhaps, in the electric chair which Steve has built in his basement? Will it be Marion–a wife for a wife? Or, since Steve inexplicably allows the possibility, will it be Steve himself?

The rest of the play is part farce, part melodrama, milking the situation for light satire and sudden reversals. The farce isn’t too funny, but that’s not entirely Lock’s fault. The cast and the director of this production just don’t have the sense of humor to make it work. The melodrama is a little more intriguing. I wasn’t driven mad by suspense, since there’s not enough tension for that, but it’s certainly unpredictable enough to keep you guessing.

The House of Correction is the sort of play that publicists and thesaurus-crazed critics would call loony, zany, or wacky. Yet those adjectives don’t seem to apply after the first few scenes, when Lock has exhausted his absurdist antecedents without significant comic effect. Then, in many ways, the play becomes more explicit. Steve isn’t some monster from the id, but rather a menace with specific interests in revenge and justice. Half the time he’s just a thesis puppet. And the play squats under the burden of the playwright’s polemic zeal. In the end, through the character of Steve, Lock literally enjoys a patronizing last laugh. Apparently it takes a heavy hand to write for the Theatre of Justice.

Overall, the production has the feel of academic theater trying to pass for storefront. Director Catherine Head makes some fundamental errors in blocking: actors sharing scenes in three-quarter positions without looking at each other, one actor standing behind the sofa talking to the seated actor’s back–that sort of thing. Paul Engelhardt (as Carl) travels dramatically light with a single motivation (fear), which he kneads to a pulp. Claire DeCoster (as Marion) discards motivation altogether, particularly in relation to Steve, where she progresses from coconspirator to victim to true believer without having much sense of why. Lawrence Novikoff plays Steve, raisonneur and generally dangerous guy, although he doesn’t internalize the text or manage a convincingly scary character. But then he’d be a lot scarier if the other actors looked scared, and this isn’t exactly an ensemble performance.

I feel like The House of Correction wants to be one thing, can’t admit to being another thing, and winds up being something different. It wants to be an “illumination of injustice” and a “provocation,” according to Lock’s manifesto. He even feels it would be more provocative (a key word here) in a “large, comfortable theatre” where the “incongruity between the uncomfortable situation on stage and the comfort of the playhouse is a veritable model of injustice.” Of course that large, comfortable theater speaks more of box office than profound incongruity, as Les Miserables has proved conclusively. And The House of Correction seems more to pander to the light-comedy taste of the middle class than to assault their moral hypocrisy. Which means Lock is really licking the hand he professes to bite. But really–the way it winds up–I’m sitting in the back room of a coffee-house, sweating profusely, watching the naive beat the converted about the head and shoulders with moral truisms as old as the Dead Sea Scrolls.